This content is for subscribers only.
Join our club! Become a subscriber to get access to the latest issue of Australian Golf Digest, plus exclusive content and videos only available with a digital subscription.
The 20 Most Consequential Moments In Women’s Golf History, Ranked - Australian Golf Digest The 20 Most Consequential Moments In Women’s Golf History, Ranked - Australian Golf Digest

In celebration of Women’s History Month earlier this year, we took an in-depth look at the history of women’s golf and identified the moments that had the most consequence. 

20. Lydia Ko reaches world No.1 at age 17 (2015)

Before Lydia Ko, it was Tiger Woods who held the record for youngest person to become No.1 in either the men’s or women’s golf rankings. He was 21 years old when he first took over the top spot of the OWGR in June 1997. Ko beat him by almost half a decade: she was just 17 years old when she reached that milestone in February 2015.

A five-time LPGA Tour winner, Ko overtook Inbee Park, interestingly with a runner-up finish at the Coates Golf Championship. “I personally think this is the start,” Ko said at the time. “Golf is a sport that you can play for many years, and that’s my plan. This is only the start of my second year on tour. I’ve been enjoying that and I’m really looking forward to what’s coming up next.”

And that’s what made her reaching world No.1 so incredible: everyone watching knew it was just the beginning. A few weeks later she would validate the ranking with another LPGA title. Ko, with her quick smile and a control over the game that made each round look easier than it possibly could’ve been, was – and still is – easy to cheer for. She brought fans to the game, inspired players young and old, and continues to do so today.

Said award-winning journalist Jaime Diaz: “Lydia becoming No.1 at age 17 established her as a generational talent, one who in the ensuing years put herself on the cusp of the LPGA Hall of Fame, one of the toughest halls of fame to get into in all of sports, if not the toughest. She has been the best female player of the past 10 years, an era marked by parity, by a good margin.”

In 2015, she held the No.1 ranking for 19 weeks. She has held the No.1 position two other times since, totalling an additional 106 weeks as the world’s best.

19. USGA creates US Women’s Amateur (1895)

In 1895, the USGA established its first three American championships: the US Amateur, the US Open and the US Women’s Amateur. The US Women’s Am field consisted of 13 women that November. They played 18 holes of strokeplay at Meadow Brook Club in Hempstead, New York, with Lucy Barnes Brown carding a 132 for the victory.

In hosting the US Women’s Amateur along with its two men’s championships, the USGA put an immediate focus on and value in women’s golf as it established itself as the governing body for the game in the United States. In turn, the rest of the country was given an example to follow. That same year, the USGA also made New Jersey’s Morris County Golf Club an official USGA member club. Morris County was an all-women club at the time and received full voting rights. The USGA created space for women golfers from the beginning. Without that early support and validation, the women’s game would’ve been slower to grow in America.

18. Judy Bell becomes first female USGA president (1996)

She was a golfer first. A life-long amateur, Judy Bell won the Colorado Amateur as a 15-year-old and played on two US Curtis Cup teams (1960 and 1962). In 1967, she shot 67 at the US Women’s Open, a record that held for 14 years.

As time passed, however, the affable Bell began volunteering with the USGA as a member of the Junior Championship committee. Then, she was a rules official, breaking barriers by being the first woman to work at the Masters in that capacity. Her infectious personality and charm eventually led her to become the first woman to serve on the USGA’s Executive Committee and then in 1996 at age 59, she became the first female president of the governing body, serving the customary two one-year terms.

17. Inbee Park completes the career Grand Slam (2015)

Inbee Park’s golf career began in the middle of the night in 1998, when she was awakened by her parents yelling at the television. It was 3am in Seoul, South Korea, and Se Ri Pak had just won the US Women’s Open in Wisconsin at Blackwolf Run, the first Korean to win a major. Two days later, Park, a week shy of turning 10, had a golf club in her hands for the first time.

That moment came full circle in 2015 when Park, now 35 years old, claimed the Women’s British Open title at Turnberry, and in the process capped the career Grand Slam, becoming one of just seven players to win four different majors. Park’s remarkable career includes 21 LPGA titles and seven major victories; in 2013, she won the first three majors of the year to become the first player, male or female, to accomplish that feat since Babe Didrickson Zaharias in 1950. The golf world knew Pak’s US Women’s Open win popularised golf in South Korea, but Park’s Grand Slam was the personification of that moment and it led to a long line of great female players that was to come from Asia.

16. Ann Gregory becomes first Black woman to compete in USGA events (1956)

When Ann Gregory played the 1956 US Women’s Amateur, she became the first Black woman to compete in a USGA championship. Later that year, the 44-year-old also played the US Women’s Open. Her participation in both championships came in the midst of the civil rights movement in the United States. Throughout her career, she shared stories of being mistaken by a maid in a golf locker room and being banned from attending the player’s dinner at the 1959 US Women’s Amateur at Congressional Country Club. Gregory withstood racism and discrimination with fortitude and humour.

After the incident at Congressional, she told Joe Dey, the USGA executive director at the time: “I realise the money I paid to enter the tournament didn’t buy stock in the clubhouse. I’ll eat a hamburger and be just as happy as a lark, waiting on tee No.1… I just wanted to play golf.”

Gregory lost her first-round match at the 1956 Women’s Am, falling to Carolyn Cudone, who would go on to win five straight US Senior Women’s Amateur titles. Still, she set the precedent for golf to include women of all races and paved the way for future professional Black female golfers. Seven years after Gregory’s historic start at the US Women’s Am, Althea Gibson became the first Black woman to join the LPGA Tour.

15. Old Course hosts Women’s British Open, with a Hall of Fame winner (2007)

In 2007, the AIG Women’s British Open was played on the Old Course at St Andrews. Though the Home of Golf previously had hosted women’s amateur events, this was the first professional women’s event to be played on the hallowed grounds. That mattered from a historic perspective – having the biggest women’s championship outside the US played on the game’s oldest course sent a message of legitimacy. But it also mattered from a viewing perspective. People like watching golf at St Andrews, and to have the game’s best women compete on a course familiar to even causal golf fans provided the women’s game with unprecedented exposure. And then when Lorena Ochoa won, the moment became unforgettable.

It was Ochoa’s first major triumph. She arrived at St Andrews the No.1 player in the world, having won 12 LPGA titles, but lacking that breakthrough victory to help cement her status among the game’s historic elite. And she did it handily, winning by four. That season she went on to become the first LPGA player to win more than $US4 million in a season.

Ochoa, who grew up in Mexico, was popular not only because of her great play, but also because she was a great person. She was known to take time at tournaments to find the maintenance staff and thank them for their efforts, even having lunch with some grounds crews. “She built a little reputation for herself doing that, and it’s the kind of thing you would’ve seen an Arnold Palmer do,” Judy Rankin said. “She was a tremendous asset and of great importance to the LPGA Tour.”

Having a star like that mattered for the LPGA Tour. Having that star win the first British Open at St Andrews was monumental.

14. USGA bumps the US Women’s Open purse to $US10 million (2022)

The USGA made a statement in 2022 when it raised the purse for the US Women’s Open from $US5.5 million to $US10 million. It’s not a coincidence that this happened about a year after Mike Whan, the former LPGA Tour commissioner, started his role as chief executive of the USGA. Whan did so much for the LPGA: increasing the number of tournaments, bumping up the prizemoney payouts, and securing more television time for women’s golf. So, when the USGA announced its hefty purse increase – thanks to bringing in a presenting sponsor – it was easy to see who deserved the credit for the impressive decision.

The purse increase made the tournament itself stand out as the premier women’s professional golf tournament, but its real value was in the ripple effect it had on the other women’s majors. After the announcement, the Chevron went from $3 million to $5 million. The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship doubled its prizemoney, paying out $9 million to the field. The Amundi Evian went from $4.5 to $6.5 million, the AIG Women’s Open went from $5.8 million to $7.3 million. Though not a major, the CME Group Tour Championship – which already had a $1 million payout to the winner – doubled that huge pay cheque to $2 million in 2022.

By demonstrating how much it values women’s golf, the USGA forced other tournaments to ask themselves how much they value women’s golf. The effect was undeniable: in 2023, the season-long LPGA purse jumped more than $100 million for the first time. Now in 2024, that number is more than $116 million.

13. Karrie Webb becomes youngest living person to enter World Golf Hall of Fame (2005)

It’s the stuff of dreams that a young girl hailing from Ayr in Tropical North Queensland could ascend to claim the title of the world’s foremost woman golfer. At just 30 years of age, Karrie Webb etched her name into the annals of golf history by becoming the youngest individual ever to grace the esteemed halls of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Her journey began with a resounding triumph at the 1995 Women’s British Open, where she seized victory by a staggering six strokes, solidifying her status as the event’s youngest champion at the tender age of 20. The subsequent year saw her soar to greater heights, clinching four prestigious LPGA titles, along with the coveted Rookie of the Year accolade, while also etching her name as the first player to surpass the $US1 million mark in earnings within a single season.

Webb’s illustrious career reached its pinnacle when she completed the Super Career Grand Slam with her second triumph at the British Open in 2002. Further adding to her glittering legacy, she secured her eighth Australian Ladies Masters crown in 2013. Throughout her storied tenure in the LPGA, Webb earned the prestigious title of Player of the Year on two occasions (1999, 2000), emerged as the leading money earner thrice, and clinched the Vare Trophy thrice for boasting the finest scoring average. Her remarkable tally of 41 LPGA victories and seven women’s majors serves as a testament to her unwavering dedication and prowess on the greens, all while engaging in a gripping rivalry with the illustrious Annika Sorenstam of Sweden. What Webb was able to do for the interest of golf in Australia is perhaps her greatest achievement – an impact that lasts to this day courtesy of the Karrie Webb Scholarship, which helps her country’s future champions start off on the right foot.

12. Augusta National spotlights women’s amateurs (2019)

When the most prominent golf courses in the world host women’s tournaments, women’s golf is elevated. More people talk about the tournaments because of the familiar venues, and overall interest rises. Same goes for when arguably the most well-known golf club in the world creates a women’s golf event. And that’s exactly what happened when Augusta National Golf Club created the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

When the inaugural championship was held in 2019, the world tuned in to watch women compete on the course they’ve watched host the Masters for decades. Curiosity might have been the initial impetus, but then Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi put on a show. The two prominent college players proved mesmerising as they separated themselves from the field in an impressive head-to-head showdown. If you closed your eyes and heard the cheers that echoed through the back nine when Kupcho eagled the 13th hole, you would have no idea it wasn’t the Masters being contested.

Women’s golf had arrived at Augusta National, seven years after the club welcomed its first female members, and showed it clearly belonged. Says Trillium Rose, a Golf Digest Top 50 Teacher: “Major championships like the Masters opening their doors to women marks an important step towards gender equality in golf.”

11. Annika Sorenstam shoots 59 in an LPGA event (2001)

Historically, golf has done well when there’s a single, standout player to cheer for. In the early 2000s, that was Annika Sorenstam. The Swede solidified herself as one of the greatest to ever play the game when, in 2001, she shot 59 at the Standard Register Ping LPGA tournament in Arizona. It was the first sub-60 in LPGA history – and still the only one.

“It was important for golf to see a female player break 60 for the first time ever,” renowned performance guru Pia Nilsson said. “It showed how good the LPGA players were.”

That season, Sorenstam had nine wins. The next year, she won 11 times. She was dominant, to put it gently. At the same time, Tiger Woods won 10 times on the PGA Tour in 2000, completed the Tiger Slam (winning four consecutive majors) in 2001 and won six times in 2002. The women’s game benefitted from having Sorenstam as the LPGA’s undisputed star. And attention and energy was increased by Sorenstam winning at the same time as Woods.

10. Kathy Whitworth sets all-time victory mark (1982)

In 1962, Kathy Whitworth won her first LPGA Tour event. Fast forward 20 years and the Texan was hoisting another winner’s trophy: this time, it was at the Lady Michelob. It was her 83rd LPGA win. With that victory, she surpassed Sam Snead as the winningest professional golfer of any tour, men’s or women’s.

Whitworth, who passed away in 2022, went on to win five more times on the LPGA Tour, finishing her career with 88 wins. It’s a record that seemingly won’t be broken. And she still has more wins than any PGA Tour player, too, Tiger Woods having joined Snead with 82.

Whitworth earned $1,300 for that first win, and $30,000 at the last. She was the first LPGA player to earn more than $US1 million in a career – and showed that the LPGA Tour was a place where female athletes could compete and thrive.

9. Nancy Lopez wins fifth straight start in standout rookie season (1978)

Nancy Lopez joined the LPGA Tour in 1978 and took the world of golf, and sports, by storm. She won an incredible nine times in her first season, including five straight, and the Women’s PGA Championship, her first major.

With her scene-setting performances, Lopez did what few female golfers have been able to do: she gained the attention of the world beyond golf. If you were a golf fan, you knew of Lopez. But even if you hadn’t cared about golf before 1978, you knew of Lopez. She had everything: an undisputed talent, that wonderful combination of being incredibly kind and fiercely competitive, an underdog story coming from modest means, a swing that had been coached by her auto-body-shop-owner father, great style and the most genuine smile. You couldn’t help but cheer for Lopez. She brought attention to the LPGA and women’s golf in a way no one had in decades.

“Lopez came along and was a game-changer in the way that one person in a sport can light the whole thing up,” Judy Rankin said. “And she definitely did that. People were fascinated with Nancy Lopez.”

In Lopez’s first year on tour, the LPGA’s total purse was $US2.6 million. After she had been on tour for just five years, the annual purse more than doubled to $6.255 million. You can’t credit just one person for that increase, but if you had to choose one, it would be Lopez.

8. Mickey Wright wins 13th LPGA title in one year (1963)

In October 1963, Mickey Wright shot 70 in the final two rounds at Stardust Country Club in Las Vegas to win the LPGA Championship by two shots. When she lifted the trophy that Sunday evening, it was the 13th time the 28-year-old had hoisted a winner’s trophy that season. It was an LPGA record that is yet to be broken.

Fans watched Wright not only to see her win, but to see her swing. Ben Hogan famously described it as the best golf swing he had ever seen. That was a signal to the world that LPGA players weren’t just the best female golfers, they were the best golfers, fullstop.

“It gave recognition and more equality in the view of the top female professionals,” said performance guru Pia Nilsson.

Six years later, at 34, Wright played her last full season on the LPGA Tour as she struggled struggling with a foot injury. Although playing sparingly, she still had game, winning her last tournament in 1973. It was her 82nd win, making her second only to Kathy Whitworth for most career LPGA wins. From 1958 to 1966, Wright won 13 majors. She was dominant, which is always fun to cheer for. And she did it with one of the greatest swings the game has ever seen.

7. Babe Zaharias overcomes cancer to win US Women’s Open… by 12 shots (1954)

When we said Nancy Lopez brought fans to golf in a way no one had in decades, the player we were thinking of from decades prior was Babe Didrickson Zaharias. The list of women who were able to convert general sports fans to women’s golf fans is short, and it starts with Zaharias. She wasn’t just a golfer. Before she played golf, she won two gold medals and a silver in track and field at the 1932 Olympics. So, when she picked up the game in 1935, she already had a fanbase.

On the course, Zaharias was a bomber – and a show-woman. Needless to say, the fans loved her. “Except perhaps for Arnold Palmer, no golfer has ever been more beloved by the gallery,” wrote Charles McGrath years later for the New York Times Magazine. She was a dominant amateur player, becoming the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur in 1947 after winning the US Women’s Amateur title the previous year.

When 13 women came together to create the LPGA Tour in 1950, Zaharias was one of them. In 12 years, Zaharias won nine majors. But her golf career was brought to an abrupt halt in 1953 when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She underwent surgery in 1954 but a month later, she competed in the US Women’s Open, winning by a stunning 12 shots.

It was Zaharias’ last major victory. Her cancer returned, and two years later she died at age 45. What she did at Salem Country Club remains one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history. The way the world cheered for her made it a defining moment for women’s golf.

6. The inaugural ‘Dinah’ is held at Mission Hills (1972)

In the early 1970s, the LPGA Tour was rarely on television and the purses were small, the majority offering between $US25,000 and $30,000. So, when the Colgate Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle came around in 1972, with a $110,000 purse and the weekend aired on national television, it was a key moment for women’s golf. “That was the commercialisation turning point for the LPGA Tour,” says Hall of Famer Judy Rankin.

The next year, the Dinah’s purse jumped to $135,000 and three other tournaments boasted $100,000 purses. The TV time gave critical exposure to women’s game to find a larger audience and more sponsors. Indeed, the tournament’s creation launched the LPGA into a new modern business era.

“The Dinah” quickly became a favourite tournament of both players and fans. It helped to have stars like Mickey Wright (1973), Rankin (1976), Kathy Whitworth (1977) and Nancy Lopez (1981) win early. And when Amy Alcott jumped into Poppie’s Pond after her victory in 1988, it was the start of one of the most iconic traditions in women’s golf.

The tournament became a major in 1983, is now called the Chevron Championship and is played in Texas. It was last played at its original Mission Hills home in southern California in 2022, and though the goodbye to The Dinah’s original home was bittersweet, the tournament’s undeniable positive effect on the women’s game remains.

5. The Solheim Cup makes its debut (1990)

Karsten Solheim, the founder of equipment manufacturer Ping, and his wife, Louise, came up with the concept of the Solheim Cup and modelled it after the Ryder Cup. The men had been playing their biennial United States vs Great Britain & Ireland/Europe team event since 1927. It was time the women had a chance. In its first edition in Orlando, Florida, the Americans won decisively: 11½-4½. Though the crowds that year were modest, and the event wasn’t televised, the biennial tournament has grown dramatically since its inception.

The Solheim Cup produces big viewership numbers, both on-screen and in person. But more importantly, it has produced big moments as the two sides have made this a competitive and eventful affair. Case in point: Suzann Pettersen in 2019 holing the winning putt for Europe on the 18th hole and promptly announcing her retirement, or Dottie Pepper winning all four of her matches in 1998 after the European team put a picture of her on a punching bag, or the USA coming back from a 10-6 deficit to win in 2015 after controversy over a conceded putt.

Few events bring more passionate energy to women’s golf than the Solheim Cup. And none of it would exist without the inaugural Cup in 1990.

4. Se Ri Pak wins US Women’s Open, inspires generation of Korean golfers (1998)

It was an epic finish to the US Women’s Open, regardless of what happened next. Amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn buried a 40-foot putt on the 18th hole of regulation play to force a playoff with a still relatively unknown 20-year-old named Se Ri Pak from South Korea. After the 18-hole playoff, the pair remained tied and went into sudden death. Finally, after two more holes, Pak won. She was the first player from the Korea to win the US Women’s Open, and everyone was watching.

Inbee Park, who claimed two US Women’s Open titles herself, was a child awoken in the night by her parents screaming at the television when Pak won. Days later, she picked up a club for the first time. Similarly, thousands of Korean golfers have memories of watching Pak play that US Women’s Open. The effect was direct. Golf’s popularity exploded in South Korea, especially among girls.

Recall that in the late 1990s, Korea was in the midst of a financial crisis and in need of a hero. That’s part of the reason Pak thinks her win resonated the way it did. Pak inspired a generation of golfers whose dominance was felt for decades to come. In 2021, Jin Young Ko’s win at the BMW Ladies Championship marked the 200th victory by a Korean on the LPGA Tour. Pak changed the complexion of the women’s game with that playoff victory, figuratively and literally, elevating the competition in the process.

3. Annika Sorenstam competes at Colonial (2003)

Annika Sorenstam wasn’t the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event, but when she received her much-anticipated sponsor’s exemption to compete at the Bank of America Colonial in 2003, there was something different. The scene was a spectacle: the greatest female golfer in the world teeing it up on the PGA Tour. By that May, the 32-year-old Swede had already won five LPGA majors and 43 LPGA titles, becoming the dominant player in the women’s game. But did that mean she could compete against the men? Could she make the cut? Could she… win? These were the types of questions golf fans – and sports fans in general – couldn’t stop asking as many became enthralled with the story before Sorenstam even set foot on the property.

It was a frenzy: 583 members of the media arrived to cover the tournament (up from 178 the previous year). With all the attention, Sorenstam stood on the 10th tee and striped her 4-wood down the middle. A perfect shot, followed by her jokingly falling over afterwards. The pressure was real, but she didn’t falter. In her opening 71, she missed one fairway and four greens. It was an iconic ball-striking display. The next day she shot 74, missing the cut.

The attention Sorenstam brought to the women’s game was enormous, and to put on the ball-striking display she did further demonstrate how good the women’s game had become.

2. Title IX expands opportunities for women’s golf (1972)

Women’s sports overall, including golf, changed forever when US Congress passed Title IX in 1972. The landmark law made it illegal for someone’s gender to be the reason that they didn’t get educational opportunities. So that meant all federally funded schools – everything from elementary schools through college and universities – had to provide equal opportunities in all of their programming, including sports.

The result was a seismic shift in schools’ approach to women’s sports. Budgets expanded and college scholarships became available and opportunities increased dramatically. Title IX fundamentally changed the experience of college golf for women – the facilities, gear and coaches that women gained access to went well beyond anything pre-Title IX female college golfers could have dreamt of.

Think of the legendary golfers who were able to develop their games by attending universities on golf scholarships. Before having her Hall of Fame LPGA career, Annika Sorenstam played college golf at the University of Arizona. Had Title IX not existed, would Sorenstam have become the ground-breaking player she turned out to be? Nancy Lopez attended the University of Tulsa on a golf scholarship. Would she have become the Nancy Lopez we know if not for the college golf experience she had?

The list of players goes on and on. Fast forward to the current era of women’s college golf and we have Wake Forest University’s Jennifer Kupcho making a back-nine eagle at Augusta National on international television to win the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and Rose Zhang winning her first professional LPGA start after playing college golf at Stanford. Title IX created and enhanced opportunities for both along with thousands of others.

Without Title IX, the level of investment in women’s college golf and the rise of talented players who became the backbone of the women’s professional game, may never have happened. And the next generation of players who those golfers inspired may never have gotten the opportunity to have their dreams fulfilled the way
they have.

1. The LPGA Tour is founded (1950)

In 2024, the LPGA Tour will hold 33 official events with players from 28 countries competing for nearly $US118 million in prizemoney. Perhaps that was always the vision of the 13 golfers who founded what is now the oldest continuous women’s professional sports organisation in the United States. Likely, however, their goal was more modest. Simply creating an opportunity for the best players to play against the best players sounded good at the time – and to make a little cash doing it would be nice, too.

Nearly 75 years later, modern LPGA players still will likely never fully appreciate the efforts of Alice Bauer, Patty Berg, Bettye Danoff, Helen Detweiler, Marlene Bauer Hagge, Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Betty Jameson, Sally Sessions, Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork, Louise Suggs and Babe Zaharias. To establish the tour, the 13 organised their own tournaments and setup their own courses. That first year of 1950 they held 15 events with a total of $US50,000 up for grabs. Yet what resulted from those modest early days has grown to become arguably the most significant league in all of women’s sports.

The LPGA Tour helped established golf as something that women could do as part of their daily lives. Those early pioneers inspired generations to follow, from Suggs to Mickey Wright, to Kathy Whitworth to Judy Rankin to Nancy Lopez to Juli Inkster to Annika Sorenstam to Lorena Ochoa and so on. By generating interest in newspapers and magazines and eventually television and websites, the LPGA Tour made women’s golf visible. You know the quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Well, it’s hard to become a woman who plays golf if you’ve never seen a woman play golf.

The vision of the LPGA Tour eventually spurred similar leagues in Europe, Korea, Australia and Japan, helping the game grow collectively around the world. It’s hard to imagine what the women’s golf would look like today had those 13 women hadn’t dreamed big and created the LPGA Tour. 

Getty images: Jan Kruger, Kieran Dodds, Doug Benc, Bettmann, David Cannon, Scott Halleran